Low-Interaction Games

November 4, 2009

“Dude, it’s your turn.” Rick is staring at me from across the table.

Huh? My brain freezes. Where are we? I was munching on a cookie and thinking about whether or not I had remembered to close the garage door after leaving the house earlier in the evening. Oh…right. Power Grid. I run my hands across my face, blink a few times, and glance at the power plant market. It takes a few seconds before I can fully re-focus on the game and concentrate on playing. These moments happen to the best of gamers–fatigue, stress, or distractions can pull our minds away from the game in front of us. But sometimes the blame for the momentary lapse in concentration lies not with us, but the game we’re playing. I call them low-interaction games.

Power Grid is perhaps the worst offender in my collection. An average game runs 90-180 minutes without much direct interaction between players with the exception of power plant auctions. There’s also a lot of mental math, which kills table talk as each player tries to figure out how he or she can spend money in the wisest fashion. There are many things I like about the game, but if I want to interact with people, it’s strictly through off-topic conversation, which lengthens the playing time. I sometimes find myself glancing at the board and thinking, Are we still playing this? Shouldn’t it be over by now?

Another low-interaction game is Ticket to Ride, which is not so much a communal  game as several solitaire games. I’m trying to fill in my tickets, you’re filling in yours on another end of the map, and there’s  terrible excitement if a player (heaven forbid!) snatches up a key section of a route before someone else. However, this game plays more quickly than Power Grid, so it’s not as bad.

A third game that comes to mind is Carcassonne, which I’ve been playing a lot recently. Gameplay is very intuitive, though there’s not much direct interaction. People are usually only directly competing if they are trying to out-do each other with farmers, or trying to connect up two cities. However, the “beer and pretzels” nature of the game is such that we can hold a conversation while playing. The game is so simple it can take a backseat while we talk about anything under the sun. And the 30-45 minute playing time means I’m never staring at the table wondering, When is this going to be over?

Since really getting into board games two years ago, I’ve learned that low-interaction games aren’t exciting for me unless they are simple and short. Conquest of Paradise is an example of a game that, while interesting in its theme, drove me up a wall. The game ends just as you are ready to interact with othe1r players (i.e., raid their villages, burn down their huts, and take their freaking yams–mwahaha!). I prefer to be playing games where the auctioning/trading/fighting is fast and furious, and people are engaged most or all of the time in what’s going on in the game (or if they’re not, they can carry on a conversation because the simplicity of the game allows for it).

This realization makes me wish Board Game Geek would include an “interaction rating” in each game profile. We’re in a recession, every dollar is precious, and I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash purchasing games that don’t have lots of player to player wheeling and dealing or pillaging and looting. If I wanted a low-interaction game, I’d fire up FreeCell on my computer.

Are there games that you love/hate because of the low or high level of interaction? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear about them.

Gaming with Colorblindness

November 3, 2009

“What color is this?”
I hold up a crayon to my two-year old as we start to draw a picture with her crayons.
“Umm… Green!” she replies.
I wasn’t quizzing her on her knowledge of colors. I wanted to draw a tree and wasn’t sure if the crayon I was holding should be used for the leaves or the trunk. I’m colorblind.

“What do you see?”


You probably see a 74. I see a 21.

I get that question a lot after someone finds out about my colorblindness. And it’s a very difficult one to answer – how do you describe a color? I’m red/green colorblind (deuteranopic). I can see the colors red and green (or blue and purple), but it is difficult to distinguish between the two at times. Taking a colorblindness test can diagnose the condition and help to explain what I see, but most people still don’t get it. Now I can tell someone to Google “colorblind” and get sites that show images side by side of what people like me see. This site does a good job. Those color vision tests all look the same to me!

“What about stop lights?”

I’ve learned various ways to handle colors in my environment. For stop lights, the red and green are actually designed to be different looking so the green looks almost white to my eyes. There are also other clues that can be used: the red light is always on top or on the left when mounted sideways. In other situations, if I really can’t see the color I’ll ask someone. Usually my wife or daughter can help me out, but I’ve also asked complete strangers. Sometimes once I’ve been told something is red or green I’m able to then see the colors. I think somehow my brain compensates for what my eyes miss.

I also change my behavior to help avoid the issue. The color of clothes I buy is affected. As an engineer I often make charts of data. My charts will always have a color and shape associated with each different label. This is good practice for everybody: if you print out a report/presentation it should be legible in color OR black and white.

“I thought this was a blog about board games?”

I was getting to that… Colorblindness definitely affects my board gaming. The most obvious (and generally least important) result is when I pick out my playing piece. I almost always pick blue. Yellow, white or black are my next choices. I generally avoid green, red, orange or brown. If each player in a game only has one token, it usually isn’t a problem keeping track of the colors (a conscious effort on my part at times). However, if there are several tokens and they will be moved around a lot (Carcassonne for example), I will sometimes ask other players not to use certain colors.

When the colors are a part of the game or can’t be avoided, it may be a challenge. I played Power Grid for the first time a few weeks ago. The board has a map with several regions, each a different color. We only had three players so only three of those regions are in play. I had a hard time figuring out which cities were in play and which were out. My first game of Ticket to Ride was also difficult. The colored train routes and cards were very similar to my eye.

Usually the colors aren’t a challenge and don’t effect my play, but not always. I already suffer from analysis paralysis in some games. The extra few seconds I need to concentrate on who-has-what-tokens-where can slow me down even more. To keep from slowing down game play, I may make a bad move because I didn’t realize that red enemy token was actually a green friendly one.

Ingenious Tiles

The colors may look alike, but the shapes don't.

Fortunately some games design around these issues. I think the biggest key for a game design is to double up on the differences by using shapes AND colors. Ingenious is a game of matching colored tiles. Blue and purple?! Red, green and orange?! This game could have been a nightmare. But each color also has an associated shape. This makes it very easy for me to quickly see what I have and where I can play. We also have a dominoes set that each number has a different color. My daughter matches the colors while I match the number of dots – this helps both of us. The Ticket to Ride designers got feedback about difficulty in distinguishing some colors and added symbols to the routes in later editions.

And when the game is designed poorly (at least in color management), I try to adapt. In a second game of Power Grid, we blocked off the border of the regions we were using with the city tokens of a fourth color. It was a great help and makes me wonder why they didn’t draw boundaries between the colors. A game like Here I Stand looked confusing at first glance – the Ottoman green and Protestant Brown looked a lot alike. After playing, I realized it didn’t matter as those powers’ tokens never interact so I don’t have to worry about confusing the colors. And if it came down to it for a game I really liked that after repeated plays I still had troubles with – I would look at making my own board/tokens to eliminate any confusion. Fortunately, I haven’t had to do that…yet!